Tea Party Losses Give GOP a Better Shot to Win Back the Senate

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

The Republican Party is now well-positioned to win control of the U.S. Senate after beating back tea party challenges in primaries across the country this year.

Victories by incumbents Pat Roberts (Kansas) and Lamar Alexander (Tennessee) this week complete a primary process in which, unlike 2010 and 2012, the GOP did not dump any of its Senate incumbents in favor of more electorally-risky Tea Party candidates. And in open seats, party voters mostly opted against nominating figures with controversial records in favor of more established Republicans like North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state’s House of Representatives who won a competitive primary in May to become the Senate nominee there.

Democrats have been openly rooting for a repeat of 2010 and 2012, where the GOP turned winnable Senate races into defeats in Missouri, Indiana and Delaware by picking flawed candidates. (To be sure, Tea Party champions like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio also won both primaries and general elections during this same period.) This year’s Republican candidates are unlikely to blunder into talking about “legitimate rape” as Missouri Republican Todd Akin did in his unsuccessful 2012 campaign. None have previously said they “dabbled in witchcraft," like Christine O’Donnell, the unsuccessful GOP Senate candidate in Delaware four years ago.

Republicans need to win six seats in November to control the Senate, and there is a now clear path for them to do so. Democratic incumbents retired in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, and Republicans tapped establishment candidates (sitting House members in West Virginia and Montana, the former governor in South Dakota) who are now heavy favorites to win November.

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell addresses supporters after winning the Republican nomination for Senate in Delaware, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010, in Dover, Del. O'Donnell upset Rep. Mike Castle.. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)Rob Carr / AP

Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina face electorates that are conservative in areas where President Barack Obama is unpopular. In all three states, Republicans have rallied around an establishment candidate, and in Alaska, where GOP voters will pick a candidate on August 19, the two leading candidates are also political veterans. One is the state’s former attorney general, the other its current lieutenant governor.

Polls show the races in Colorado, Iowa and Michigan, states where Obama won in 2008 and 2012, effectively tied, causing even more worries for Democrats.

These early prognostications are not destiny. In many of these races, GOP candidates still have not yet participated in debates or faced sustained media scrutiny, which could provide a way for their Democratic opponents to gain ground.

For example, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, a state senator who is the GOP Senate nominee there, earlier this year publicly discussed how Obama might deserve to be impeached, a stance that could hurt her in the general election.

Republican Iowa State Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to veterans at a restaurant Monday, July 28, 2014, in Urbandale, Iowa. It was the first campaign appearance for Ernst _ locked in a tight race against Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley _ since returning from two weeks of training with the Iowa National Guard. (AP Photo/Catherine Lucey)Catherine Lucey / AP

In some states, particularly Georgia and North Carolina, the population of blacks and Latinos is rapidly growing, so Democrats have the chance to win those races by making the electorate more liberal-leaning than current polls anticipate.

Some of the Republican candidates have their own challenges, particularly in Kentucky, where incumbent Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is so personally unpopular that Democrat Alison Grimes could win.

And upsets are always possible. Few polls in 2012 predicted that North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, would win the Senate race there, even as Obama lost the state by 20 points.

Even if victory is not guaranteed, what Republicans do seem to have done, unlike in 2010 and 2012, is narrow the divide between the Tea Party and traditional wings of the party. The Tea Party wing has forced the party’s candidates to toe the conservative line on nearly every issue, calling for the repeal of Obamacare and opposing immigration reform that would create a pathway to citizenship for people who don’t have legal status.

That rightward shift by the GOP establishment has in turn made it harder for Tea Party candidates to win, as incumbent and establishment Republicans argue they are just as opposed to President Obama and Democrats as any Tea Partier.

With little difference on policy views, Republicans in nearly every state have picked the candidates who were endorsed by Washington GOP elites. That was the exact plan of Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who boldly told the New York Times earlier this year the party establishment would take on insurgent-conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and “crush them everywhere.”

Conservative activists though won’t leave 2014 without a win, as they upended House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, one of the most establishment figures in Washington, in a June primary.